A bustling industrial city with strong rural ties, TANTA marks the end of the cotton harvest in October with Egypt's largest festival, the Moulid of Saiyid Ahmed el-Bedawi. Tanta's population jumps from 250,000 to nearly three million as visitors pour in from the Delta villages, other parts of Egypt and the Arab world. Streets and squares fill with tents and stalls; Sufis prepare for zikrs, while musicians test their amps ("Allah, two, three"). Thousands camp out amid heaps of blankets and cooking pots, though sleep seems impossible. With music and chanting, vendors and devotees, a circus with lions and tigers and a levitation act, Tanta becomes a seething cacophony.
The moulid honours the founder of one of Egypt's largest Sufi brotherhoods. Born in Fès in Morocco in 1199, Saiyid Ahmed el-Bedawi was sent to Tanta in 1234 by the Iraqi Rifaiyah order, and later established his own tariqa ("brotherhood"), the Ahmediya. His name is invoked to ward off calamity – "Ya saiyid, ya Bedawi!" – but his moulid is anything but angst-ridden. "Although a religious festival, pleasure is the chief object of the pilgrims, and a few fatahs at the tomb of the saint are sufficient to satisfy every pious requirement", noted Murray's Handbook in 1891. The climax to the eight-day festival occurs on a Friday, when the Ahmediya – whose banners and turbans are red – parade with drums behind their mounted sheikh. Events focus on the triple-domed, Ottoman-style mosque wherein Bedawi and a lesser sheikh, Abd el-Al, are buried, which is located some 300m east of the railway station.
Tanta is known for its roasted chickpeas or garbanzo beans (hummus in Arabic, though it does not necessarily mean that they are mashed with garlic and tahini). They can be bought at any of the multitude of sweet shops surrounding the mosque.